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What do you think of 2 years of Prep?

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VICTORIAN parents are increasingly demanding their children begin primary school before they are ready, forcing many to repeat prep and prompting the state's largest primary school to offer a two-year prep program to deal with the influx of immature children.

Financially burdened parents say the cost of childcare and kindergarten, and the prospect of another year out of the workforce are factors in requesting their children start school early.

However, the Education Department is pressuring Mill Park Heights Primary School to abandon its two-year prep program, saying it breaches department policy. Principal Deborah Patterson said she had ''been copping a lot of flak over it''.

''It is like you are interfering with the ecosystem when you try to bring in something new,'' Ms Patterson said.

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She said the rigid approach of the department to innovations such as the program was restricting principals and driving some parents into the private system.

In Victoria, children can start school from four years and nine months and must attend school by their sixth birthday.

A department spokeswoman said students who were not ready for their next school year could repeat. ''However, this is done on a case-by-case basis, in full consultation with parents,'' she said, ''and is not an arrangement which applies to an entire class.

''The department is working with the [Mill Park Heights] school to move to the case-by-case approach.''

The Australian Education Union state president Mary Bluett said that some parents were shopping around for schools that would allow their child to repeat prep.

''It does happen, particularly with working families, where a kid may have been in childcare and it's a lot cheaper to send them to school,'' Ms Bluett said.

Families were telling schools their child must go to school, even though their kindergarten teacher said the child needed another year to develop socially and emotionally, principals told The Sunday Age.

Mill Park Heights introduced its two-year prep program earlier this year to give socially and emotionally immature children an extra year to get ready for a regular classroom.

Ms Patterson said in 2009 she thought she had convinced 22 parents to delay their child's enrolment at school until 2010, but 16 of them enrolled in other schools in 2009 anyway.

''We took the high moral ground on the issue and supported the kinder teachers' assessment, but we weren't considering the financial factors and other issues for parents who couldn't keep their children at kinder or school for another year - we had to respond to our community to do something for those children,'' Ms Patterson said.

''I can see the dilemma that parents are in and often they cannot even get a second year of kindergarten. In our area of Whittlesea, only one kindergarten has any vacancies for next year,'' she said.

It is believed to be the only two-year prep program running in the state system. State schools have effectively been banned by Education Department policy from operating ''pre-prep'' classes for a decade, yet Catholic and independent schools regularly offer them.

Mill Park Heights's trial program has 30 students enrolled in its first year and 140 enrolled in straight-prep grades. Through play, the first-year students learn only the literacy and numeracy elements of the prep curriculum. The rest of the time is devoted to developing social and emotional skills.

''We have seen a child go from rocking into a foetal position in the classroom and in a short time she is just blossoming under the program. I know we are doing the right thing,'' Ms Patterson said.

She expected some of the first-year children would jump straight into year 1 and miss the straight-prep year.

Michelle Chapman described her daughter Alana, 5, as a child who worries with extreme separation anxiety. She would cry and scream in the mornings and refuse to get ready for kinder. Despite her behaviour, Alana was not eligible for a second year of funded kindergarten, but her kinder teacher was worried about how she would cope at school.

Mrs Chapman enrolled Alana in the two-year prep program and is amazed at the change. Alana is eager to go to school. ''I see a different girl now.''

School has also freed up $300 a week in childcare and kindergarten fees and given her more freedom to increase her work hours when she needs to.


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